Some novel approaches

Inside out by John Dalla CostaThe following column, which appears in every other issue, presents a counter-conventional look at contemporary advertising and marketing.Some companies admired for their product and merchandising innovation are also finding new ways to create advertising.The Gap, Benetton...

Inside out by John Dalla Costa

The following column, which appears in every other issue, presents a counter-conventional look at contemporary advertising and marketing.

Some companies admired for their product and merchandising innovation are also finding new ways to create advertising.

The Gap, Benetton and Loblaws have all redefined value for their prospects. Not incidentally, they also all go about the process of developing advertising differently than most other companies.

Deploying artists

Instead of using traditional ad agencies, these companies have built their brands, and sold their products, by deploying artists to directly express their vision.

Benetton’s provocative advertising is all the work of one man, a photographer who works as an extension of the founder and chief executive officer.

Loblaws’ Dave Nichols does his own thing. And The Gap commissions famed Rolling Stone photographer Annie Liebowitz to shoot celebrities for its acclaimed black-and-white poster series.

That these successful enterprises use unorthodox approaches to develop advertising should not surprise us.

To heighten competitiveness, companies have already compressed layers and streamlined processes internally.

It is only logical that this vertical compression, which has improved productivity and quality, would eventually be applied horizontally to suppliers.

More than efficiency is realized.

The Gap, Benetton and Loblaws use technology to daily monitor not only sales, but also customer preference.

This technology is a tool for intimacy, for understanding with great precision the needs and wants of buyers and prospects.

Developing advertising without the usual intermediation of product managers and ad agency people is a way of projecting intimacy into advertising.

Not all companies can develop advertising this way, but all of us involved in communications can learn from it.

Lesson No. 1. It all flows from the ceo’s vision.

For The Gap, Benetton and Loblaws, product selection, pricing, store design and positioning are all personally driven by the ceo. Not surprisingly, advertising is sourced from the same business inspiration.

Luciano Benetton not only commissions and approves all the ads for his chain, but recently appeared naked in one to encourage customers to bring used clothing to shelters for the homeless and disadvantaged.

Take it more seriously

The point is not for ceos to appear in their advertising, but to take it more seriously, to involve themselves more personally in how their vision for customer service is being interpreted and translated in communications.

The danger of being too removed from the advertising is the same as being too removed from the retail environment in which the sale is made. Distance defeats intimacy.

Lesson No. 2. The practitioners of marketing and advertising must compress communications development.

The sequential process of research-strategy-approval-creative-research-approval-production-research-approval takes too long.

The task is to keep the steps between vision and execution as few as possible. Each stage in the process, and each participant, must add tangible value or be eliminated because bureaucracy defeats intimacy even more than distance.

Clearer result

Lesson No. 3. The closer the link between the practice of creative and the idea for the business, the clearer the resulting communication.

Brands often become fuzzy because so many people leave their fingerprints on the lens through which the customers view the product.

For Loblaws, Benetton and The Gap, creative provides focus and telegraphs company vision to customers in a language and style that is relevant to them.

Obviously, some operating adjustments are required for marketers and creative resources.

Marketers must step out from behind the protective screen of research and actually apply judgment. They must have the confidence to set direction in a business world shrouded in ambiguity, contradiction, confusion and competition.

Creative people must practice their art as an expression of a business idea.

This means that craft must serve business and not aesthetic priorities. (Too many advertising professionals still gag at the production values of Dave Nichols’ shot-on-video infomercials, without understanding their profound selling values.)

Lesson No. 4. This is the obvious one. Agencies are no longer the exclusive source for advertising creative.

For Benetton, Loblaws and The Gap, there is no distinction between who supplies the selling creative, and who crafts and produces it.

There have always been clients who have managed creative in-house, but this is different. A creative resource is working as a strategic partner with the marketer, providing instantaneous translation of strategy. The goal is pure selling creative.

With the legion of ex-agency creative people now working in the production sector, Canadian marketers also have a chance to forge direct links with directors, photographers, music and lyrics writers.

Not many are doing it, but, as we have seen with Coke and the Creative Artists Agency, companies are already exploring ways to make the making of advertising more effective.

This is not so much about the decline of advertising agencies, as it is about their regeneration and redefinition.

It is the next logical step in direct marketing, in which direct becomes not only an adjective, but a process.

John Dalla Costa is an author and consultant to senior business executives. His first book, Meditations on Business: Why Business As Usual Won’t Work Anymore, came out in 1991 and he is hard at work on a second. Dalla Costa spent 16 years in advertising, and heads a new company called Catalysis, which provides strategic counsel to ceos and senior managers.